By Ron Fassler
“She came along at a time when you weren’t supposed to have versatility. They didn’t know how to pigeon-hole Kaye Ballard.” – Rex Reed
Kaye Ballard, a musical comedy performer par excellence, died in January of 2019 at the age of ninety-three. This after a lifetime spent in show business (she was out on her own and working professionally at sixteen). Her seventy-seven-year career (!) displayed a host of versatile talents from actress to singer to monologist (she even played the flute). Beloved by all who knew her (she counted everyone from Carol Channing to Marlon Brando as friends), The Show Goes On! is a wonderful new documentary, though burdened by a generic sort of title, since what is on display cuts deeper—as it should. Its main focus addresses head-on the rich subject of why Kaye Ballard never had that one true hit that would have made her a superstar (like her friend Carol Channing).
Yes, she got to star in a two-season sitcom The Mothers-in-Law (1967-69) and dazzled audiences in the mid-1950s starring in The Golden Apple, one of Broadway’s great forgotten gems, but there’s that word: forgotten. She did manage to be in one Broadway hit, the musical Carnival in 1961, but she wasn’t the star and didn’t manage to earn a Tony nomination for it, which might have helped move her higher up the ladder. Dan Wingate admirably directs, focusing on Ballard telling her story in her own words. Filmed while in her nineties, she effortlessly recalls the highs and lows of how the vagaries of show business can often be as debilitating as it is celebratory. Its eighty-nine minutes fly by and you can’t ask for a better tour guide on her life’s journey than Kaye Ballard herself.
As she describes, Ballard grew up in Cleveland, Ohio and while a teenager worked as an usher at the RKO Palace. She would imitate all the actors for the audiences and adored hanging around with an array of vaudeville actors on the bill whenever they would glide into town.
She got a job as a singer at Chin’s Chinese restaurant in Cleveland (“on the other side of town”) along with Jack Soo, who was the star the show, and who later went on to fame in the Broadway production of Flower Drum Song—as well as the film—and is best remembered today as Nick Yamana on Barney Miller). Ballard claims her first really good job was in Detroit where she sang among another eighteen acts on the bill. But it wasn’t before long that she hit the road (at sixteen, mind you) with Spike Jones and his Orchestra, playing six shows a day at such prestigious spots as the Strand Theatre in NYC. “And we sold out every show.”
She lived on W. 4th Street near 7th Avenue, hanging into the wee small hours of the morning with her best friends Maureen Stapleton, Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson… and the aforementioned Marlon Brando. I have to add here that the dear, late Rick McKay (who had friends everywhere and counted Kaye and Marlon among them) told me a story that late in his life Brando asked him, “You know Kaye Ballard… tell me, is she gay?” When Rick replied yes, Brando said, “No wonder I could never get anywhere with her.”
That story is NOT in the film, because as informative as this documentary is about her professional life, there seems to have been a decision to purposely stay away from her personal one. Ballard’s private life isn’t discussed at all, save for her relationships with her mother and grandmother. It’s not so much a flaw as a glaring omission. You just take it for what it is: nobody’s business but hers.
In the early days of television, when musical variety programs ruled, Ballard appeared on the best of them. She counts her twenty-six weeks on The Mel Torme Show between 1951-52 as her greatest education. And it’s to the film’s credit that the producers went after every clip of her singing they could find. It’s a trove of what you might think are lost musical numbers that delight as much today as they did sixty and seventy years ago. They also give a glimpse of what her nightclub act was like. Remember that in the 1950s, people went out for dinner and then they didn’t go home—they would often go out drinking to a supper club which featured one, two and three o’clock in the morning shows—spots like the Bon Soir, the Village End, the Blue Angel. “Judy Garland came to see me at the Blue Angel with Ethel Merman” she tells us. “And Judy would shout out, ‘Do me, Kaye!’”
Then we get to see her do her Judy imitation and man—it’s funny and flawless.
As for the question of why she never became a bigger star, the stories about bad luck, bad timing, bad career advice abound. But it’s never about blame, or “woulda, shoulda, coulda.” Ballard always remained sanguine about things and, from all evidence, she had a wonderful, long, fun-filled life. In the end, who can ask for anything more?
An added bonus are the talking heads beside Ballard, which count Woody Allen, Joy Behar, Carol Burnett, Carol Channing, Ann-Margret, Rex Reed, Liz Smith and Jerry Stiller. If after all that you still doubt whether the film is worth your time, check out the trailer here:
Kaye Ballard: The Show Goes On! gave two “live streaming premieres” on July 14 and 15, and will be released through virtual cinemas beginning July 17. Here is the website for more information: https://www.kayeballardmovie.com